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Parliament and the war


Vision Audio
Opening titles read "Parliament and the War"
Title reads "War Precautions Act"  
Interview Well, the Australian Parliament met in October 1914, after the election which had been held on the 5th September, and almost immediately started to consider, not really the question of where Australian troops would go and fight, that was left to the British Government to decide, but how they would manage the war at home. And they introduced an Act (the Labor government introduced an Act) called the War Precautions Act. 


Overlay: Worker, 27 April 1916, State Library of Victoria

Cartoon of a man with a gag and a sign pinned to his back with the words "The Critic". On the balls and chains attached to his ankles are the words "Free speech restriction". To the right stand two men. The first is dressed in riding attire holding a whip and with "Australia" on his hatband. The second is a judge.

The War Precautions Act was amended at various points during the war. It was so significant because it gave the government, the executive branch of government, the power to introduce regulations to govern issues to do with what was called 'public safety and the defence of the Commonwealth'. Now these were very broad terms and, as it happened, when the war started to become very divisive in Australia, the Labor government and then the National government would use these regulations to control a whole range of aspects of Australian life
Interview Given that the War Precautions Act became so significant and was ultimately used to, really, to restrict many people's civil liberties, it is surprising how little debate there was about it in October 1914. Hughes, who was then Attorney-General, gave assurances that the government would use the War Precautions powers as little as possible and, of course, they were considered to be in place only for quote "the duration of the war". But even allowing for that, it's surprising that so few parliamentarians could see how much scope and power the War Precautions Act was giving to the executive branch of government.
Title reads "Enemy Aliens" 2 minutes 3 seconds  
Interview Overlay: Internees and guards at a road construction, Torrens Island internment camp, South Australia, c1914, National Library of Australia, PIC/648/27 The question of enemy aliens was a very divisive one in Australia and yet, I think, in really restricting the civil liberties of these Australians, the government had the support of the majority of the population. Nearly 7,000 Australians of enemy extraction – enemy aliens as they were called – were interned during the war and many were deported after the war, but the people who supported them were relatively few in number. In the Parliament, there was some concern expressed by those parliamentarians, and there weren't many of them, whose electorates were German, or had large numbers of German speaking Australians within them. The Barossa Valley, for example, in South Australia was a very strongly German area and the member of parliament for that electorate was concerned, as well he might have been, at the implications of the War Precautions Act and the attacks on enemy aliens.


Overlay: Snowy River Mail, 10 March 1916, State Library of Victoria

"Position of Aliens/German Treachery"

Overlay: extract from Position of Aliens

"The naturalised Germans here had a very special duty – that was to warn the Australian Government of its danger. They lived among us, ate bread with us, affected friendship, but let us live in a fool's paradise. There is only one word for the conduct of those who, being naturalised, knew, and that is "traitorous", and they should be dealt with as traitors. – "Argus""

But then, I think, you have to realise that what happens in war-time is that opposition, hostility, hatred against groups like the German-Australians or the Austrian-Australians took time to build up. There was a lot of suspicion of them, rather hysterical suspicion of people spying and engaging in conduct that might damage the war effort, in the early months of the war, but the real hostility to the German-Australians and the enemy aliens really builds up in 1915 on.

Title reads "Unlawful Associations Act"

3 minutes 51 seconds

Interview One of the organisations that, at least the Labor government under Hughes, and then when Hughes became leader of the National government, and the National government, opposed very strongly was one called the 'Industrial Workers of the World' – the IWW or, as they were commonly known, the 'Wobblies'. Now Hughes, both as Attorney-General and then as Prime Minister, had a particular dislike of this organisation, partly because they represented a very radical element within the trade union movement. Hughes, himself, had risen to power through the trade union movement, and within the labour movement there was this division between those who thought, well, the way to bring about change was by negotiation, compromise, incremental change, and the more radical elements who were in favour of very strong industrial action against the business movement, against the employers, against the government. And so Hughes had already developed a dislike for the radical element of the trade union movement and, when he is in power, he comes to see the IWW as the embodiment of everything that's threatening the war. He sees them as traitors, disloyal, and a force that must be crushed.


Overlay: The Sydney Morning Herald, 22 December 1916, State Library of Victoria

"Unlawful Associations"

Overlay: extract from Unlawful Associations

"… and nothing could be too drastic in the way of giving ample power to the Government to deal with incendiaries, murders, and confessed enemies of society as at present constituted."

Ultimately, he introduces legislation into the Australian Parliament called the Unlawful Associations Act. This is just after the first conscription referendum has been defeated and it's an interesting Act because it very specifically identifies the IWW as a potential threat to Australian security. And that Act aimed to limit and to, indeed, ban the activities of the IWW. It's then amended in the middle of 1917 – in a quite radical way – to mean that it wasn't just the organisation that was illegal, being a member, even if a person was a member of the organisation, they could be deemed to be guilty of an offence. Originally, you could only be found guilty of an offence if you were taking actions that were likely to damage the war effort but, finally in 1917, just being a member of an 'unlawful association' – as it was called – could attract a fine or, at worse, a prison sentence. And in 1916 and 1917, the whole leadership of the IWW is arrested and put in gaol and some of them are actually deported to South America.

Title reads "Trading with the Enemy Act"

6 minutes 44 seconds



Overlay: The Argus, 15 May 1915, State Library of Victoria

"Enemy Contracts./Proposed Annulment./Bill Before Parliament."

One of the first things the Labor government did was to introduce a bill that restricted trade with enemy countries, called the Trading with the Enemy Act, because during war time, of course, you're not allowed to continue to trade with countries that have become enemy powers. And yet Australia was trading with Germany, it was trading with countries like Belgium – that were occupied – so the Australian government moved to ban trade with Germany. But then it had to work out ways to compensate businesses and primary producers for the loss of trade and much of the time that Billy Hughes spent in London during the war was devoted to trying to ensure that Australian trade in primary products continued.
Interview But Hughes also saw opportunities in the disruption of trade for Australia, and he was particularly intent on capturing for Australian businesses those economic interests which had previously been dominated by German companies, particularly in the area of metals – base metals.
Interview Overlay: Why it became necessary to have an enemy contracts annulment bill in Australia, reprinted from the Statesman and Mining Standard, 1915, National Library of Australia, FERG/3980 And so, in addition to the Trading with the Enemy Act, in 1915 the Parliament passed an act which annulled – wiped out – contracts with enemy powers because businesses had said, 'well, yes, we may be at war, but we have a contract with a company that is foreign and we can't renege on that contract'. But the Parliament passed the Act that enabled those contracts that had existed before the war to be invalid, if they were with enemy powers. And so, Hughes then spends quite a deal of time building up the metals industry in Australia, creating, for example, a refinery for zinc in Tasmania.

Title reads "Price Fixing"

8 minutes 47 seconds


Overlay: The Australian Worker, 22 April 1915, State Library of Victoria

Cartoon of Andrew Fisher attempting to row a boat (named "Federal Parliament") to a man (labelled "The Public") drowning at sea. Two sharks, labelled "The Trusts" and "High Prices" are circling.

Billy Hughes is seated at the rear of the boat with a lift raft labelled "Anti-trust legislation". He is attempting to break a chain linking the boat to a mooring post labelled "The Constitution".

Well, prices of particularly of food and other commodities was a huge issue politically, particularly for the trade unions. And so the government of Andrew Fisher tried to address this question but it had comparatively limited powers, the federal government had limited powers.
Interview Now in mid-1915 the Andrew Fisher government decided it would try to put the question of federal powers over the economy to the Australian public again in another referendum and that was scheduled to be held in December 1915.
Interview But in a very controversial decision, Hughes, who became Prime Minister in October 1915, decided not hold the referendum.
Interview So confronted with the problem and the anger that he had created by deferring the referendum, Hughes had to use some of the powers within the War Precautions Act to control prices. So there were some attempts through regulations and of the War Precautions Act to control prices but it remained a very controversial issue throughout the war. And as far as the left-wing press was concerned what was going on was that young men were being sent overseas to defend the country while their homes were being raided by the fat plutocrats. There were lots of cartoons of the fat businessman stealing food away from the starving family of the man that is fighting overseas.